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Hay Fever at The Mill at Sonning | Review

You’re always assured of a lovely dinner at The Mill at Sonning: I couldn’t stomach much of it on press night, though that was entirely down to me being at the tail end of a bout of gastroenteritis and being on a diet of liquids and ibuprofen for the preceding thirty-six hours or so. Anyway, this play about an eccentric family whose members invite one guest each to stay at their house for the weekend gets a serviceable revival here, but it is almost too polished to really tease out the laughs in Noël Coward’s script. This production isn’t as nuanced as it could be, either, and while it is admirable that the high energy that it starts with is sustained to the end, the result of so much volume is that it comes as a blessed relief when Beth Lilly’s Jackie Coryton, out of fear or frustration or both, decisively refuses to play any further part in the Bliss family’s latest round of parlour games.

Hay Fever. Aretha Ayeh (Left) Nick Waring (Right). Photo Andreas Lambis.
Hay Fever. Aretha Ayeh (Left) Nick Waring (Right). Photo Andreas Lambis.

Judith Bliss (Issy van Randwyck), the lady of the house, raises laughs whenever she realises, fleetingly, that she’s not as young as she was. It’s a comedy before it’s anything else, and perhaps it’s best not to dwell too much on whether a family like this one would plausibly have friends so markedly different from themselves. The ageing diva is married to David (Nick Waring) a stuck-up novelist, and the pair have rather predictably ill-mannered and spoiled children, Simon (William Pennington) and Sorel (Emily Panes).

I wonder if, almost a century after this play was first performed, contemporary audiences aren’t wholly convinced that the younger ones, or indeed the older ones, are all that brattish – most patrons can probably think of people who behave with far more incivility (and occasionally, at the theatre itself, although that’s another conversation for another time). Are we meant to dislike Simon and Sorel? In the supposedly more accepting and broad-minded times in which we live, are we more inclined instead, as housekeeper Clara (Joanna Brookes) seems to do, to accept their quirks and aberrations for what they are (however grudgingly), and protest only at demands that are impossible to fulfil? I ask this as I’ve been thinking about Sorel’s remark to Simon, “People stare in astonishment when we say what we consider perfectly ordinary things.” I don’t think I was astonished by anything that was said!

There is, as Coward himself was fully aware, little if any plot – people come, and when they’ve seen and heard quite enough, they go. The show does have its moments: Myra Arundel (Aretha Ayeh) lets rip in the second act (of three, but there’s only one interval here), letting the not-so-blissful Blisses – and everyone else – know in no uncertain terms what’s gone wrong in the first place. A nice touch of actor-musicianship was a highlight, so much so I’d have appreciated an encore at the end.

What a show of this nature does demonstrate is that snobby conduct and a tendency to look out only for one’s own interests is nothing new. A sufficiently amusing experience.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Noël Coward’s effervescent comedy of bad manners – written in three days when he was 24 – is set in a country house in Berkshire.

Judith Bliss is a famous West End actress, technically retired. Husband David churns out romantic novels. Their grown-up children – Simon and Sorel – resolutely refuse to grow up.

The pathologically self-absorbed Blisses invite a quartet of hapless guests for the week-end : a career diplomat, a predatory society girl, a conventional sporty chap and a sweet-natured flapper. The guests turn out to be cannon fodder in the family’s ongoing solipsistic fantasies. The sociopathic hosts are briefly in-credulous when their guests creep away after breakfast.

Hay Fever has something for everyone. The rude bohemians in the audience love watching themselves in action. More conventional theatre-goers relish the enactment of their worst social nightmares. A delirious roller-coaster of a play, encased in wit, comic brio and emotional truth.

Noël Coward’s Hay Fever
SHOWING: 16 MARCH – 13 MAY 2023

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